agriculture, Food Security

El Salvador’s Ongoing Struggle with Food Security (Part 1)

El Salvador has not been exempt from the food security problems that have historically plagued developing countries.  According to The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), food security exists when “all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food which meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” Currently, El Salvador’s food security condition remains stable, without instance of acute food shortages.  Although ‘stable,’ the food security situation in El Salvador is definitely less than ideal and market prices for agricultural products continue to climb.


FAO’s Global Information and Early Warning System on Food and Agriculture reports (GIEWS) highlight a few important characteristics of the current Salvadoran state of food security.  A 40% rise in the price of maize and beans since last year is the first among the challenges facing Salvadorans.  These are the country’s basic food sources, which experienced severely reduced yields due to the excessive rainfalls of 2010, coupled with the international rise in grain prices.  Finally, the 2011 sowing of cereal crops is predicted to be low due to the damage caused by the La Niña phenomenon.


Food security problems in El Salvador have historical roots. Landholdings in El Salvador were once concentrated in the hands of a small group of wealthy elites until agrarian reforms were initiated in 1980.  This group of landholders instituted a system of cultivation in which they focused on a singular export, producing a mono-crop culture that would persist for decades.  The focus of production on a singular crop necessitated the importation of many other important agricultural commodities that were not being domestically produced. The first of these mono-crops was cacao, during the end of the 16th century, followed by indigo in the 18th century, and then finally in the mid-19th century, coffee. From 1871 to 1927 El Salvador was referred to as the “coffee republic.” The extremely lucrative nature of the coffee trade served to further concentrate land in the hands of oligarchy that had developed.


The beginning in the 1980s witnessed an increase in demand for government intervention in the agricultural sector, as Salvadorans pressed to gain access to land through protests and other public demonstrations.  An agrarian reform eventually liberated over 500 hectares from 230 estates, or about 15% of the country’s farmland. Although the redistribution of land seemed to be promising, overall it was not effective enough to change the trajectory of El Salvador’s agricultural sector or economy.


During the Cristiani administration (1989-1994), El Salvador’s economy remained dependent on agricultural imports.  Cristiani prioritized his family business, Semillas Cristiani Burkard (SCB), a privately held seed company headquartered in Guatemala City, Guatemala, over internal development of the agricultural sector.  Crisitani curtailed the growth and development of the domestic sector by heavily importing seeds from SCB in order to accumulate personal wealth.


Cristiani also pushed for further industrialization of the country, which had been seen briefly during the Civil War, in the form of maquiladoras, which contained free economic export zones or ports commonly located in and created by third world countries, which dealt mainly with exporting cheaply priced, handmade products. Maquiladoras were located in the metropolitan areas of El Salvador, which heightened the level of urbanization, creating problems of congestion, but also demands for more industrial commodities and services, such as electricity and transportation.


This population shift, from rural to urban centers of living and sometimes from El Salvador to other international locations, had significant impacts on the agricultural sector.  Remittances provide a clear example of the consequences of migration on agricultural practices.  Salvadorans are extremely dependent on remittances, and as much as 20.7% of their GDP consists of said monetary transfers.  The Central Bank estimated that in 2010 remittances from Salvadorans working in the United States totaled a hefty $3.5 billion.  Essentially, the less developed communities in El Salvador are making lifestyle and economic shifts that signify a movement away from subsistence agriculture, made possible by remittances that supplement or comprise their household incomes.


The Funes administration (2009-present), has been left with the historical lack of diversification of agricultural production, along with the absence of development of the domestic agricultural sector as a consequence of Cristiani’s strategy to focus on crop imports.  Almost 95% of fruit and vegetables consumed in El Salvador are imported from abroad, along with 30% of all its beans and 40% of corn.  Funes and the FMLN have made it a goal in May of 2011 to achieve “food sovereignty” meaning the ability to decide what agricultural policies El Salvador will implement which will also hopefully lessen the impact the international market has on the Salvadoran agricultural sector.


In an effort to achieve “food sovereignty,” Funes has explicitly recognized the role of small, non-commercial family farmers who produce 70% of the country’s domestically cultivated grains, mainly for the consumption of their own family.  These farmers are particularly significant to stability of El Salvador’s food security situation and Funes proposed the Family Agriculture Plan in an effort to aid them. This plan intends to serve over 325,000 families that are dependent upon subsistence agriculture by continuing to provide them with free agricultural packets of seeds and chemical fertilizer.


Food security has historically and currently is a major issue that confronts El Salvador.  The problems caused by a lack of food security must not only be addressed by the Salvadoran government but also highly prioritized, as current environmental and market conditions—climate change and high market prices for agricultural commodities—are only serving to exacerbate the insecurity.